Illusions and Miracles

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Military forces in the 18th and 19th centuries employed a deceptive tactic called “the Quaker gun trick.” This involved using wooden cannon replicas, sometimes painted black, to trick an adversary into withdrawal or surrender – without a shot being fired. We are not talking Peace Testimony here, but perhaps Friendly Trickery – deception for the greater good of de-escalation.

A trick can mean a short cut, or craftiness like the coyote, or deception like a sleight-of-hand, or entertainment like Houdini’s. Or deceit. Not all tricks are benign.

Quakers are known as plain people. What you see is what you get. As Iowa Conservative Meeting has written, “Watch what I do and you will know what I believe.” No frills. No pretext. No “foolish diversions.” From the start, Friends have been warned against indulging in foolishness. George Fox once scolded, “There is but little need to spend time with foolish diversions, for time flies away so swiftly by itself, and when once gone, is never to be recalled.” There are no tricks to our testimonies.

Yet the landscape of perception widens. Tricks are merely one lens into our growing understanding of the processes of perception. One door leads to another, and we find ourselves pondering the nature of awareness, the galaxy of faith.

We are immersed in a world of illusion. To distinguish between illusion and reality in this rugged terrain called life is no simple thing. It is a slippery slope.

In his book The Age of Anxiety, W. H. Auden wrote, “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”

The mass media and our own minds are filled with many of the same illusions: Border walls protect our nation. Weapons keep us safe. Police keep the peace. Race doesn’t matter. Climate change is overstated. The list is as long as the number of people walking earth. Each one of us carries our own sack of perceptions. These ultimately shape our opinions, and our opinions calcify into facts for us. Indeed, we would rather “die in our dread” than let go of our illusions.

Frequently, we can’t even see the thing or the person that is right in front of us. Numerous studies of implicit bias demonstrate our frequent non-recognition of what is right there, in plain sight. Illusions are the foundation of all our “-isms.” Race, class, gender, age . . .

As Quakers, we rely on our testimonies and queries to serve as cairns, guiding us through this world of illusion. We wait for the still small voice and the inward light, serving as fog horn and lighthouse in the fray.

And then, we find that the thing that has been revealed to us plainly is often inexplicable, mysterious, paradoxical. Miracles have gotten a bad rap in our oftentimes cynical, fact-checking, sensory-overloaded culture. And yet, they abound. Not tricks. Not charades. Miracles.

Perhaps if we would recognize miracles for what they are, we could envision a world beyond war. Beyond hate. Beyond walls. Now, that would be a miracle! And that miracle could be a reality, if only we would “climb the cross of the present moment and let our illusions die.”

In his song “Everything is Holy Now,” folk artist Peter Mayer describes the miracles that are possible when our illusions die: “When I was in Sunday School / We would learn about the time / Moses split the sea in two / Jesus made the water wine./ And I remember feeling sad / That miracles don’t happen still. / But now I can’t keep track / Cause everything’s a miracle. / Everything. Everything. Everything’s a miracle.”

Elias Hicks encouraged Friends to see “the fullness of the godhead in every blade of grass.” Such vision en-Lightens the world. The thrum of the still small voice, deep within us, is no trick. It is a miracle.  ~~~

john heid is a sojourning member of Pima Monthly Meeting (IMYM).

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